Dead in the Water (Gemini: A Black Dog Series Book 1) (4 page)

BOOK: Dead in the Water (Gemini: A Black Dog Series Book 1)
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I shoved upright and absorbed the chaos surrounding me. Had I really thought this crime scene couldn’t get any worse? Black goo squished through my fingers when I braced in a puddle of congealing blood to get back on my feet. Its magic radiated up my arm.
A kraken?
In a sinkhole in Nowhere, Texas? Really? Its faint energy tinkled over my skin, and I knew what I had to do.

Of the eight original tentacles, three remained. Two hung suspended over the water. The one squeezing Flipper and the one constricting Thierry. The way Shaw was climbing the latter meant it wouldn’t last much longer. I had to move fast. The third remaining arm swung in wide arcs before slapping the ground then sweeping left to right as it bowled over the marshals in pursuit. My best hope was reaching that one, but I had to hurry. A guy wielding a flaming sword was in hot pursuit of it. No pun intended.

I chased after the swordsman, slipping in muck and stumbling over uneven earth. When I reached him, I yelled, “Don’t sever it.” His glare called me a crazy woman. I didn’t argue, but I did tack on, “
Yet.

He hesitated, and that was opening enough for me. “Help me pin it down.”

Three other marshals rushed the thrashing tentacle, throwing their combined weight on top of it until their dogpile held it immobilized. I rushed over, crossed the fingers on my left hand for luck, then pricked the rubbery hide with my right. My wrists slapped together and stuck from fingertips to elbows, forming a solid limb. Pain blossomed down my arms, through my shoulders, and the pale flesh purpled like bruising.

Magic burned white-hot as it burrowed under my skin, suffusing the muscles with strength to wield my new appendage. My heels clicked together, bound with unseen ropes. From ankles to armpits I formed a solid trunk. My toes stung as the nails elongated, piercing the ends of my boots and plunging deep into the brittle ground to steady me. Soon I commanded a scaled-down replica of the kraken’s tentacle, and I had to pray I was close enough to do some good. I was rooted to the spot. This one-woman rescue mission wasn’t going anywhere.

“Okay.” I struggled against the onset of panic over my limited mobility. “I got this.”

Fudge. Fudge. Fudge. I don’t have this
.
I never should have shifted to this degree.

The more of my body I altered, the faster I burned through the magic filtered from the source. I didn’t have long before I was drained, and two shifts in one day left my conjoined knees quivering.

“Hold the arm for as long as you can,” I ordered the stunned marshals. “I might need to use it again.”

The slack-jawed group gaped up at me, and one adjusted her weight like she was thinking of jumping me next. It was cat woman.
Nice
. I didn’t wait for her to make her move. I unfurled my new appendage, reached across the water and grasped Thierry’s leg. Shaw read my intent, nodded once, and severed the limb at his eye level. The sudden drop made me gasp as the muscles in my arm and back strained. One of my toes ripped from its anchor in the ground as I struggled to counterbalance Thierry’s weight. I bent like a tree being uprooted, but then her feet touched the sandy shallows, and the strain vanished.

“Shaw.”
Safe on the shore, she picked off suckers that left red welts behind. “Get out of there.”

Nodding, he released the oozing stump and hit the water with a splash. He didn’t resurface. Thierry took a full step forward, her light’s reflection emerald and lethal, but then his head breached the surface, and she hauled him out to stand beside her.

With Shaw out of the way, I cast my arm toward the kraken one last time and lassoed Flipper around the hips. A bestial roar rattled my teeth as the nubs from its severed limbs writhed. The marshals restraining the landlocked appendage shouted as the kraken’s thrashing bucked them. Rescuing Flipper became a tug-of-war with the submerged beast I couldn’t win without ripping her in half.

Limbs quivering from exertion, I cried out, helpless as the heady dose of power taken from the kraken expired. Stinging magic marched over my body, hungry ants nipping at tender skin. Flesh paled. Bones and muscles slid into their natural shape. Ragged toenails shrank to their normal length. The bindings on my arms and legs loosened, and I slipped free of them. Feet numb and tingling, I limped to Thierry. “What’s Plan B?”

“The same as Plan A.” Thierry wiped black fluid from around her eyes. “We get her out of there. I can handle the rest.” She twisted her limp ponytail into a tight bun. “We don’t have much time. As soon as the kraken shakes off the marshals pinning its arm, it’s going to dive. If it goes down, we won’t get Harlow back. No one in their right mind would follow that thing into the sink, and that includes you, even if I have to sit on you to stop you from trying.”

Me? Follow the creature into its home turf? Into the
water
? My spine turned to jelly at the thought, which would make it hella difficult to swim, because the mind-numbing truth was, I might. I had fought too hard to save Harlow to give up on her now.

Shaw craned his neck. “Rodriguez, get over here.”

“On it, boss.” He was the sword-wielding fae. His scowl bounced between Thierry and Shaw. “If I drop my sword, I want solemn vows you’ll help me retrieve her when this is over.”

Shaw nodded. “Done.”

“Sucker,” Thierry sang under her breath.

He popped her on the ass, and she growled. That move had sexual harassment lawsuit written
all
over it.

While they engaged in a battle of silent wills, Rodriguez waded knee-deep into the sink. With reverence, he sheathed his blade in a scabbard running parallel to his spine then swam toward Flipper. Reaching behind himself, he drew his sword, and it blazed with flames the sink failed to extinguish. Even treading water, it didn’t take him long to hack through the muscular tissue holding her aloft. Hauling Flipper back to shore winded him more than the short battle. Safe on dry land, he dropped to his knees and spread Flipper on her back. He shot me a thumbs-up, which I took to mean she was still breathing.

“Guess it’s my turn.” Thierry set off at a jog toward the final tentacle. “Climb off it, guys.” She made a
hurry up
gesture. “Stand back or you’ll get fried too.”

The marshals rolled aside and ran a safe distance away long before Thierry’s left hand made contact.

Green light exploded from Thierry’s palm, and the creature’s death scream rattled my eardrums. Its thrashing intensified, and its remaining limb swiped at her, but she hung on and ramped up the light show. The blackish skin peeled where she touched it, flaking off and fluttering on the hot breeze. Joints ripped like torn seams, revealing orange flesh with black veins. The creature gurgled once more then fell silent except for the hissing of seared meat. Thierry wobbled where she stood, but Shaw was there to catch her when she collapsed.

I had to move my tongue around to find enough moisture to swallow. I stared at my hand, flexed my fingers and wondered what the hell I had been thinking borrowing an unknown source of magic from a legacy. Thierry had peeled that creature like the skin off a grape. It was a miracle acting as her conduit, even for those few seconds, hadn’t fried me.

Whistling brought my attention back to Rodriguez. His shirt was fisted in his hand, and he walked away, cleaning his blade with the damp fabric while baby-talking to his sword. Flipper remained motionless on the ground. Another fae—a medic I hoped—leaned over her. She had thumbed Flipper’s eyes open and pressed a palm to the girl’s frail chest. Out of energy, I dragged one foot after the other until I reached her side and collapsed to my knees. Her arm extended toward me, fingers lax. My hand hovered an inch above hers, so close I felt the damp coolness of her skin, but I recoiled.

Comforting or not, Flipper wouldn’t thank me if she woke and discovered that I had touched her and learned her secrets.

“Is she breathing?” I asked the medic, who nodded in the affirmative. “Okay, Flipper, so you’re not dead. That’s good. Not dead we can work with.” Giddy, I sank back on my heels. This was why I had become a marshal, why I had accepted the Earthen Conclave commission. I wanted to prevent grim-faced marshals from knocking on doors in the wee hours of the morning carrying a burden that would crush the recipient of their news. So often, as with Charybdis, I failed. But not today. Today I had made a difference. “Can you open your eyes? Something?”

“Harlow.”

I frowned. “What?”

“My name—” her words slurred, “—is not Flipper.”

I wiped a trickle of warm crimson from under my nose. I tasted copper sliding down the back of my throat as I rubbed my face clean on the tail of my shirt. Staggering to my feet, I held still until the ground stopped bucking and jumping underfoot, then scowled at the kraken. It was still dead. I had just expended too much energy then stood too quickly.

“Be right back,” I promised.

Finding the young boy’s body again was tough. Mostly because not much was left of the victim after the kraken finished pulverizing the area. It didn’t take a lot for me to read magic on remains. I touched a shattered elbow and felt…nothing. No residual magic from Charybdis. No inborn magic from the boy. He was a blank slate.

This victim had been human, his only crime stumbling into an area populated by lethal fae that few mortals knew existed in order to avoid them. His parents would never know the truth of how his brief life ended. I sank to the ground and sat there beside him so he wouldn’t be alone. Even though he was past caring about such things, I wasn’t, and I hoped I never would be.

Chapter 4

I
crashed
hard after the incident at the Wink Sinks. That much I remembered. The conclave comped my room in a budget motel on the fringes of town so I could recuperate. I remembered that too. But I woke stiff from my earlier exertions and with the nagging sense of having forgotten something. Expending as much magic as I had without warming up first came at a cost, and I got the feeling from the dried crust around my mouth that I had just paid the bill.

A dark outline leaned over me, and I jerked upright so fast I almost cracked my forehead against Harlow’s before she leapt backward. After a moment’s heart-stopping pause, I swallowed my panic and slumped back against my pillow. “What the hell?”

“I was worried about you.” She scraped polish off her fingernails. “You’ve been drooling on that pillow for thirty-six hours. It’s almost midnight.”

“What?”
I blinked my eyes clear of their hazy film. “That’s not possible.”

Aunt Dot would have a heart attack if I didn’t check in soon. She had expected me home the day after my impromptu trip to Wink, and since she was my next-door neighbor, she had probably been sitting in her bathrobe on the front porch staring down the dirt road leading into town, waiting on my pickup to round the bend until well past her bedtime.

Calling her at this hour was out of the question. She hated email and thought cell phones were brain cancer waiting to happen. My cousin Isaac, her youngest son by five minutes, lived beside her. I would text him to explain the situation as soon as Harlow left, and he could pass on the information when he met his mom for breakfast the next morning. It was too little, too late, and yes, somewhat cowardly, but it was the best I could do at this point.

Once the gong in my skull stopped ringing, I squinted up at Harlow. Curls spilled over her shoulder, and the light fixture cast a golden halo around her head like an angel fallen from Candy Land. “How did you get in here?”

“I bribed the overnight manager.” She rolled a thin shoulder that caused her yellow mesh top to slide down her arm, revealing a black bra strap. “He was cheap, and it was worth it.” A heavy pause. “I owe you one.”

“No.” Debts made me uncomfortable. “You really don’t.”

“Why did you do it?” The question came out stilted. Maybe she wasn’t sure she wanted the answer.

“You had my car key.” I worked up the energy to smile. “What else was I supposed to do?”

She braced her forearm on the mattress beside me in a dent that made me wonder if she hadn’t been sitting just so for a long time before I woke. “I told you where I left the fob.”

I wrinkled my nose. “You thought I was going to stick my hand down the boot of a kid I barely know?”

“I’m not a kid.” She toyed with the ends of my hair, using her thumb to scratch off mud flakes that drifted onto the sheets. “I’m sixteen.”

Sixteen
. Had I ever been that young? Four years separated our ages, but Harlow’s wardrobe pushed the envelope of decency and her personality sparkled. My pantsuits and frown lines left me dull by comparison. “Is it rude of me to ask—?”

“What’s a nice mer like me doing in a place like this?” She cracked a smile. “I’m on the mermaid equivalent of Rumspringa. I get a year to walk on land before I decide if I want to hang up my fins and embrace life on two legs for good.”

“I didn’t realize that was an option.” The tradition wasn’t one I had ever heard of before.

Pursing her lips, she mashed a mud flake into dust against my mattress with her thumb. She shook her head once, seeming to decide against whatever she might have confided. Her next words closed the topic of mer traditions and started a new one. “I meant what I said earlier. You risked your life for me.”

“A lot of people did.” The teen scoffed, but I insisted, “It was a team effort.”

“They would have let me die,” she said matter-of-factly. “I messed up. Big time.”

I didn’t disagree on either point. “Why is that?”

“I’m not what I pretend to be.” She flicked a piece of dirt off her nail, and her tone sharpened. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

I pushed upright, wincing as my temples throbbed from the sudden motion. Either that or the persistent, gnawing hunger raking claws across my abdomen. “I didn’t touch you.”

Relief flickered across her features. “Then please don’t.” She scraped her even front teeth over her bottom lip. “If you saw inside me, you wouldn’t like what you found half as much.”

“I doubt that.” The vote of confidence made her twitchy, so I shifted gears. With thirty-six hours’ worth of sleep purring in my tank, I was itching for news. “You look good. Their medic does excellent work.” I didn’t see a mark on her. “How did everyone else fare?”

“Seven injured at the scene.” Her voice came out tinny. “One fatality.”

The urge to rest my hand on hers and offer comfort twitched in my fingers, but I honored her wishes. “Is Thierry okay?” The last time I saw her, Shaw had been carrying her toward a truck.

“She’s fine.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” That meant I wouldn’t have dreams of incubus assassins dancing through my head tonight. “She’s the one who did all the heavy lifting.”

“That’s not how I remember it.” Harlow ducked her head and pressed her index finger to my wrist. No. I got no buzz off her skin, no feedback from her magic. She was touching something
on
my wrist. “Thanks, Cam. I mean it. For having my back.”

Cam
. No one had called me that in years. In that moment I realized how much I had missed the intimacy of it.

I studied her, curious why she would grant me a boon and even curiouser about the warm weight pressing against my pulse. I raised my arm. A simple bracelet strung with luminous peach-toned pearls hung from my wrist. Intricate designs were carved into the surface of each one. How had I missed it? Had we bumped heads that hard? “What’s this?”

“I dive for raw materials.” She worried one of the holes in her top with her index finger. “I make things sometimes.”

I ran my finger over the bumpy grooves. “You made this?”

Another shrug.

“It’s beautiful.”

Harlow scooted her chair back and stood. “You should eat something. I can hear your stomach growling from here. Menus are there, and my number’s on the pad by the phone if you want some company.” She pointed at a dusty frame housing a bland flower mural on the wall beside the door. “I’m right across the hall. If you need anything, holler.”

I was pawing through the top drawer of my nightstand before she reached the door, and mulling over my options before she shut it behind her.

R
aised
voices greeted me when I emerged from the shower. It was late, a shade past midnight, and I had missed the cutoff for room service. If I wanted to eat before climbing back into bed, I was going to have to brave the diner across the street. Wrapped in a threadbare robe embroidered with the hotel’s insignia, I towel-dried my hair, twisted it up on top of my head, then followed the yelling to my door where I peered through the fisheye lens into the hall.

Harlow stood with her back pressed against the door to her room and her hand circling the knob. Thierry stood on her left side and Shaw on her right. His shadow engulfed her, and it gave that side of her face a bruised appearance. Three other people crowded the hall between our rooms. Their backs faced me. Two women and a man. At the point of their triad, a brunette with tangled hair yanked into a lopsided ponytail shook her fist while screaming at Harlow. An older woman with a long, gray braid stood behind her to the left while the brown-haired man supported her elbow.

Before I could rein in the impulse, I had taken the knob in hand and twisted until the latch gave and a crack appeared in the door. They didn’t hear the rattle or click over the shouting. They didn’t notice the gap either. Their gazes were fixed to the left. I knelt and stuck my eye to the hairline space.

“…is dead because of you…”

“…knew what he was getting into…”

“…kids grow up without their father…”

A pang rocked me when I realized they were talking about the marshal who had died in the line of duty. Why or how the woman had fixated on Harlow puzzled me. Part of me worried it was my fault. If Harlow hadn’t stayed behind an extra night in Wink to babysit me, she would have left town before the widow got a chance to confront her. The whole situation made me that much more nervous about the secrets she was keeping.

“I’ll take this up with the magistrates,” the angry woman cried. “
She
never should have been on the scene.”

“She’s a consultant.” Thierry sounded short on patience. “The Southeastern Conclave assigned her to help us with a difficult case.”

“She’s an abomination,” the woman shrilled.

Emerald light blossomed in Thierry’s palm. The brunette didn’t appear to notice, as she was locked in a glaring contest with her, but the older woman did, and she took a shuffling step back, dragging the man with her.

“The conclave doesn’t discriminate.” Thierry ground the words out through a clenched jaw. “I’m sorry your husband lost his life. Jasper was a good man, but you can’t hold Ms. Bevans responsible.”

Discriminate? Against mermaids? Or against Harlow in particular? I zeroed in on the leggy girl inspecting the faux woodgrain on the door with a quiver in her lip. What did these people know that I didn’t? How much had I missed while I was recuperating?

The grieving widow lunged at Harlow, fingers curved into ragged talons, but smashed against Shaw’s chest when he stepped in front to shield her. “You heard what my partner said.” He gripped the woman by her shoulders. “This is over, Mrs. Rebec. If you have a problem with the consultants hired by the conclave, then make good on your threat. Take it up with the magistrates.”

“Letitia,” the brown-haired man said. “This won’t bring Jasper back. Come on. Let’s get Mom home. I’ll call the marshal’s office in the morning and lodge an official complaint.”

The old woman wrapped an arm around her daughter, and Letitia allowed her mother to lead her away.

“You okay?” Thierry planted her hands on her hips and grimaced in Harlow’s direction. “We got here as fast as we could.”

“I’ve had worse.” Wincing, she brought her fingers up to probe her jaw. “That woman has a killer right hook.”

“You can press charges,” Shaw offered. “She jumped you in the hotel lobby. That’s assault. The night manager is willing to give a statement that he pulled her off you. We can also get our hands on a recording of his phone call to the marshal’s office as evidence.”

When he shifted to stand beside Thierry, the light moved with him, and I swallowed a gasp. Harlow’s delicate jaw was split and bloody. The widow must have been wearing her engagement ring when she socked her. A bare hand wouldn’t have caused that kind of damage.

“No.” The maybe-mermaid ducked into her room. “I don’t want to hang around. I’ve already stayed longer than I should have.”

“I’ll be right back.” Thierry excused herself and crossed to my room before knocking gently on the door. A satchel weighted down one of her shoulders, and she shoved it behind her. “Anyone home in there?”

I would have heard the smile in her voice even if I wasn’t staring right at it, which made it easier to brush off my knees—and my dignity—and stand. When I opened the door, so much blood rushed into my cheeks I felt lightheaded. “I heard shouting.”

“There was a misunderstanding.” Thierry skimmed my appearance, and her grin widened. Flushed, I yanked on my towel turban and let the damp waves of dark blonde hair fall over my shoulders. I doubted it was much of an improvement, but it made me feel less frazzled by comparison. Her gaze slid past my shoulder to where I had laid a pair of brown slacks and a lavender blouse at the foot of the bed. “It’s settled now.”

As confident as she sounded, I hoped she was right and the woman wouldn’t make a second attempt before Harlow left. Some fae took the whole eye-for-an-eye thing literally.

“You look like you’re getting ready to go somewhere.” She pulled a phone from her pocket and checked the time. “Did you book a red-eye or something?”

“No.” I hadn’t cracked open my laptop long enough to plan that far ahead. “I crashed pretty hard. I’m starving, and room service hours ended around ten.”

“There’s a coffee shop across the street.” Her shoulder bumped the door. “It’s crap, but it’s close. Join me for a cup?”

The way she said it made me think I didn’t have much choice. Good thing my stomach wasn’t about to argue.

BOOK: Dead in the Water (Gemini: A Black Dog Series Book 1)
11.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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